Mikaela Shiffrin could win historic world title, not that she’s keeping track

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Mikaela Shiffrin has spent her career breaking records.

When she claimed slalom gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she became the youngest-ever Olympic champion in the discipline, as well as the youngest American to win gold in any alpine skiing event.

When she won the slalom at the 2017 World Championships, she became the first woman to win three consecutive world titles in the discipline in 78 years.

On Dec. 22, she notched her 50th World Cup victory, becoming the youngest skier – and also just the eighth all-time – to reach the mark.

One week later, she broke the women’s record for most career slalom wins on the World Cup circuit (she now owns 38).

So far at these 2019 World Championships, she has claimed super-G gold and giant slalom bronze.

For those who like discussing alpine skiing records, Shiffrin is a gift. With each win, we dig into the databases and comb through stats to find some new nugget of information, some fresh way of qualifying her level of success. It’s our way of providing historic context for the way a 23-year-old skier from Colorado carves turns down a snowy slope. Because while it seems obvious that what she is doing is historic, records are the result of asking the question, “Historic in what way?”

To discuss these records, we become fluent in qualifier words. Words like ‘youngest’ or ‘oldest.’ Phrases like ‘first woman’ or ‘first American.’ Qualifier words are what make records accurate, but if you add enough of them, anything can become a record.

Given Shiffrin’s age, the fact that the majority of her success has come in a single discipline (slalom), and that the United States does not boast the deepest alpine skiing team, most of her accolades and records are qualified by these terms.

But at the 2019 World Championships in Are, Sweden, there’s a different type of record on the line, a record that doesn’t have anything to do with age, gender, nationality, or discipline. That’s because no alpine skier has ever won four straight world championship titles in the same discipline.

Full stop.

Seven athletes, including Shiffrin, have won three straight world titles in the same discipline since the first world championships were held in 1931.

  • Christl Cranz of Germany won three straight in both the slalom and the combined in 1937, 1938, and 1939. Cranz won the combined again at the 1941 World Championships, but given that the competition only included Axis-friendly nations, the international ski federation cancelled the results three years later. The world alpine skiing championships then went on hiatus until 1948 due to World War II and Cranz wasn’t competing by the time they were held again.
  • France’s Marielle Goitschel also won three straight titles in the combined (1962, 1964, 1966), but she finished second behind Canadian Nancy Greene in 1968.
  • Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden claimed three straight slalom titles in 1978, 1980, and 1982. But in his attempt for a fourth straight, he instead placed fourth, 0.92 seconds behind the winner.
  • Switzerland’s Erika Hess won three straight combined titles in 1982, 1985, and 1987, but then retired from competition.
  • Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt claimed three straight in the combined (1997, 1999, 2001), but it was American Bode Miller who claimed gold in 2003, with Aamodt finishing third.
  • American Ted Ligety won three straight giant slalom titles between 2011 and 2015, but he didn’t have the chance to go for a fourth straight after injury caused him to miss the 2017 World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Finally, there’s Shiffrin, who has claimed the last three world titles in slalom.

She’ll step into the start house on Saturday with the opportunity to become the first athlete to win four straight world titles in the same discipline. Not the first woman or the first American or the first in slalom. The first athlete. It’s a simple record, unencumbered by qualifier words.

But while Shiffrin is a goal setter, she isn’t a record chaser. The Colorado native has always insisted that she puts more emphasis on the way she skis than the result that appears next to her name.

“High standards, but low expectations,” she said in a media call in January. “That sort of mentality is what allows me to ski my best. If I think about the results first, I tend to kind of tighten up, and it’s not as easy.”

She emphasized this in a long Instagram post last Saturday, writing, “From the outside, people see the records and stats. As I have said, those numbers dehumanize the sport and what every athlete is trying to achieve… My goal has never been to break records for most WC wins, points or most medals at World Champs. My goal is to be a true contender every time I step into the start…”

Needless to say, Shiffrin likely isn’t entering Saturday’s slalom thinking about the historic implications of winning a fourth straight slalom title, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a significant accomplishment.

Of all the ‘firsts’ that Shiffrin has added to her resume – whether consciously or not – this one would mean something different. It would solidify her status not only as one of the greatest female skiers or greatest slalom skiers or greatest American skiers, but instead underscore the fact that she is, simply, just one of the greatest.

 

Coverage of the Women’s Slalom at the 2019 World Alpine Skiing Championships: 

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 5:00 a.m. Women’s Slalom (Run 1) Olympic Channel Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold
7:00 a.m. Women’s Slalom (Run 1)* NBCSN
8:00 a.m. Women’s Slalom (Run 2) NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
1:00 p.m. Women’s Slalom* NBC

*Same-day delay

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From Squaw Valley to Are, Bryce Bennett is still taking it one step at a time

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American alpine skier Bryce Bennett has seen the best results of his career in recent months, recording three top-five finishes in downhill since the start of the World Cup season. The 26-year-old is currently seventh in the downhill rankings and is expected to be an outside contender in the world championship downhill on Saturday in Are, Sweden.

“I think people are surprised because it seems like [the results] came out of nowhere, but for me, there was a huge process behind where I am now that’s hard to see. It’s actually impossible to see if you’re not living it,” Bennett said in a phone interview at the end of last month.

Bennett’s ‘process’ began in his hometown of Squaw Valley, California, the host of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. The region has produced a long lineage of talented American skiers, including Julia Mancuso and Travis Ganong. Bennett’s mother worked at Alpine Meadows Resort and his dad was a telemark racer. He was skiing by age two and quickly joined the ski program at Squaw Valley.

“Ski racing is about taking steps. You start out at your club near your home. And then you race kids around your region in California – and then against [kids in] the western part of the United States, and then against all of the United States. And each level you step up, you have to start from the beginning and figure out how to be competitive at that higher level.”

That step-by-step process has continued on the World Cup circuit. The discipline of downhill, in particular, requires experience to find success. Athletes typically spend several seasons competing on the World Cup circuit before making their breakthrough. Lindsey Vonn, who has won more World Cup downhill races than anyone in history, made her downhill debut on November 29, 2001, but 26 months would pass until she reached her first downhill podium. Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, who is retiring after Saturday’s downhill, spent over three-and-a-half years on the World Cup circuit before recording a downhill podium finish. He’ll conclude his career with 32 – in addition to two Olympic medals in the discipline.

Bennett, who made his World Cup debut just over four years ago, says the experience he has gained the past few seasons has played a large role in his recent success. “In the past, I’d show up to a venue and the first training run would be very daunting… and now with more experience, [I’m] ready to go. You can attack or bring intensity to the first training run and refine it from there.”

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One year after winning Olympic gold, Mikael Kingsbury is still striving for more

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While watching the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, then-nine-year-old Mikael Kingsbury printed out the Olympic symbol on a piece of paper and wrote below it that he would win a gold medal. He taped it to the ceiling above his bed at his home in Quebec so that he could see it every night before he fell asleep.

Sixteen years later, Kingsbury stood on top of the podium at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics – and over 6,000 miles away in Quebec, his brother scribbled across the sign so it read, ‘you did win.’ The edited version is still hanging above Kingsbury’s childhood bed today.

If anyone thought Kingsbury, 26, would take it easy now that he’s accomplished the goal he set at age nine, they were wrong. He opened his post-Olympic season with four-straight World Cup wins. If anything, he says his success in PyeongChang just inspired him more. “Winning gold just gave me more motivation,” he said in a phone interview at the end of January. “Once you reach the top, [you] want to stay there.”

In addition to his gold medal from PyeongChang, Kingsbury also owns silver from the 2014 Sochi Games. His dominance on the World Cup circuit is even more impressive. In 96 starts, he has stood on the podium 78 times, including 54 wins. His recent success is even more staggering: in his last 30 starts in singles moguls, he has won 23 times – and only finished off the podium twice. His strong results have helped him win seven-straight World Cup titles – and he’s well on his way to claiming an eighth this season. His consistency is even more improbable when you consider the unforgiving nature of moguls, an event that combines speed, form, and style – and is held on snowy slopes in ever-changing conditions.

Kingsbury’s record isn’t as flawless in world championship competition, though, something he says he’s hoping to improve upon this week in Park City, Utah. The singles competition will be held on Friday night, while the non-Olympic dual moguls event will take place on Saturday. At the 2017 World Championships, Kingsbury claimed bronze in singles, but placed 13th in duals.

“My last world championships didn’t go as well as I wanted it to,” Kingsbury said in January. “This year, [the world championships] are my main goal… I’m trying to be at my peak there.” Kingsbury has had plenty of previous success on ‘Champion,’ the slope at Deer Valley where this year’s World Championships are being held. (‘Champion’ is also the slope that was used at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, the competition that sparked Kingsbury’s gold-medal goal.) He has won the last four World Cup events at the venue,

The two-time Olympic medalist’s approach to competition is calculated carefully. In practice, he frequently skis up to a second-and-a-half faster than he generally does in competition. Because he typically qualifies in the top position heading into the final round, he’s able to watch his competitors go before him, and adjust his speed and tricks based on the score he thinks he needs.

Kingsbury also says his goals have changed since the PyeongChang Olympics, “Before it was only win, win, win. Now, it’s more about reaching my full potential.” He’s been working on new tricks to include in his repertoire and says he has a cork 1440 (four twists off-axis with skis crossed) ready to go if one of his competitor’s throws down the gauntlet.

He also trains double flips in the off-season, which are currently not approved for competition by the international ski federation (FIS). “I want to make sure I’m in the loop so if one day they say, ‘Ok, you can throw doubles,’ I’ll be ready.”

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